So Much Is Out of Our Control
“So Much Is Out of Our Control”
March 13, 2022 - Pastor Anna Blinn Cole
Second Sunday in Lent
The Lament over Jerusalem
At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, ‘Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.’ He said to them, ‘Go and tell that fox for me, “Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed away from Jerusalem.” Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.”’
When I was in my second of third year of pastoring, Lent came around and I made the decision that Lent that year was going to be colorful. Every week I spent longer than I should have dying eggs and blowing out the yolks so that I could add a new color to the egg tree that sat on the altar. It was a fun visual for the season leading up to Easter and each new color corresponded to a spiritual practice we studied that week. So a few weeks before Easter I was thrilled when a church member suggested that she bring some of her baby chicks into church on Easter to show the children. What a perfect connection, I thought, plus the spiritual practice we were talking about on Easter was going to be the practice of surprise.
Two weeks passed and Easter arrived and my church member, as promised, brought a basket full of chicks to church. As we peered into the basket at children’s time it became very clear that these chicks may have been cute and docile babies two weeks ago, but now were well into their adolescent phase and clearly a basket was not going to contain them. Out they clumsily flew into the faces of the children. Surprised? Yeah, we were surprised. I will always remember this as the Easter when a neatly arranged egg tree on the altar was nothing compared to the small flock of teenage chickens that would not go back into their basket and instead made the entire floor around the base of the altar their playground for the rest of the service. They couldn’t be contained. Try as I might to have an Easter service that looked put together and under control, it just wasn’t in the cards that year.
We’re talking today about things that happen beyond our control. And while I wish I could say that rogue teenage chickens on Easter morning in church are the worst thing that could go wrong with the world, alas, in the grand scheme of things they are not. It makes a good metaphor, though. Such a good metaphor that 2000 years ago Jesus could also talk about the struggle of herding chicks and people understood what he meant, too.
We find Jesus today living through some tense times. The tyrant, Herod, who was controlling Jesus’ homeland wanted to get rid of Jesus because Jesus’ way of loving the lost and healing the broken was threatening to the status quo. But not only that, the city where Jesus knew he needed to be in order to continue his ministry, Jerusalem, was turning its back on him. They didn’t see Jesus as a true reflection of God and they weren’t willing to turn back from their misguided ways. In our scripture today we find that Jesus is frustrated that Jerusalem won’t see him as a messenger from God. And he speaks that frustration out loud with this beautiful metaphor in which he compares himself to a mother hen, and Jerusalem, the city of the disillusioned and uncontrollable people, is like his brood of chicks who he desperately wants to gather together under his wings, but who just won’t be gathered.
Two amazing things about this story: 1, the image of Jesus as a mother hen longing for us all to be under wing is breathtakingly beautiful. I love images of Jesus and God that stretch our imaginations and paint a picture of tenderness and grace. 2, The second amazing thing about this story, is that it is both heartbreaking and also strangely reassuring to know that there were parts of life that even Jesus could not control. Hold on to those two thoughts.
This Lent we are helping one another to let go of expectations of ourselves and our lives that are impossibly high. I know this might seem totally contrary to the way Lent is supposed to be (then again this is the same pastor who once thought chickens in church was a good idea). However, I think Lent is a time for wrestling with hard things and sometimes that means we need to depart from conventions. And this is the thing that I truly wrestle with: Sure, there are some reasonable expectations that we should set for ourselves (being honest, loving and compassionate are good ones), but I also think there is an inordinate amount of unrealistic pressure that our society layers on top of us that buries us in feelings that we simply cannot be and will never be enough.
We’re using this visual of a ladder because climbing ladders is a symbol of our society’s pressure to constantly be getting better, happier, more content, more stable, more perfect. One successful step in life will lead to another more successful step in life. Whether it’s going to college and getting a good job and then a better job and then the best job; or its finding a spouse and having a child and then another child and then a dog and then a nice house with a big yard; or maybe it’s the pressure to get more and more positive feedback, more likes on Facebook or more “friends” in virtual worlds. You’re supposedly only making it in life when you’re climbing the invisible but always present ladders in your life. Doing more, being better, achieving, succeeding.
But the reality is, ladder climbing is a myth for most of us. We might try to project a stable and even improving life, because to reveal anything else might be seen as a failure. I don’t know about you but I’m barely holding on to rung where I am, let alone successfully reaching to the next. And for so many of us, the factors that make it difficult to keep climbing are simply out of our control. We get sick. We lose a job. A pandemic changes the world as we know it. Relationships end. People we love leave us too soon. There are things we can control and there is so much that we just can’t. Just as in Jesus’ day, tyrants still exist in the world and they still want to kill the innocent. We want to think our whole world is climbing a ladder toward shared ideals and democracy and mutual flourishing, but actions outside of our control make it feel like we’re all slipping several rungs back down that ladder.
It is hard to admit that we have a loving God and yet we can still slip down the rungs of the ladder. That we can love God and be faithful and still be disappointed and hurt and destroyed when things in life do not work out for us. And so sometimes we make ourselves feel better by trying to believe that God was behind it all along. That there are no truly uncontrollable events, only parts of a master plan carefully orchestrated to test us and make us stronger. That everything happens for a reason.
But this is not always true. And we know it because Jesus tells us so in this passage. He says tenderly, “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” You, me, them, all of us, have the ability to be willing or to be unwilling. And this is what we call free will. It means that you have the ability to make your own decisions apart from what God may or may not want for you. God gave us free will so that we wouldn’t just be puppets. So that we could make our own choices and so that we could authentically someday, hopefully, make the choice to love God.
The side effect of giving us this choice, is that it means we live in a world that has a lot of uncontrollable variables. This means everything does not happen for a reason. But it also means that God is not responsible for, or the mastermind of our suffering. Yet too often we hide our suffering and our loss from the world because we are afraid of what it looks like. Like we tried to have a good life, and yet for some reason it just didn’t work out for us.
But what if we released ourselves from the shame of that perspective. What if everything doesn’t happen for a reason? What if we aren’t to blame for the imperfections in our life? What if suffering and loss are just an inescapable and unfortunate reality, a part of what it means to be human. I think God would agree. I think God would agree because it was because we suffer and feel pain as humans that God wanted to join us here on earth as a human so that God could live our life and die our death. God sent Jesus to be human like us, full of its frustrations and its pain, so that we would always know that in our suffering we are never alone. There is always Jesus, standing right beside of us dealing with the rawness of life by our side.
And what I love about Jesus, going back to the amazing things we hear in today’s scripture is that he doesn’t try to ignore that the world can be unfair and uncontrollable, he does what for so many of us is so hard to do. He speaks his pain out loud and names what he cannot control and then he walks away to find what he can control. What he can control turns out to be his own actions, not the actions of other people. The very next passage in the Bible finds Jesus deciding it is okay to heal a sick man even though it’s the Sabbath, a day when you weren’t supposed to work at all, even if it was to help someone in need. Jesus couldn’t always control the events and people around him, he was human after all, but he could make the best of the circumstances in which he found himself. And for him that meant finding ways to be compassionate in the face of hostility. …To nurture and love the place where he was, even if it wasn’t the place where he thought he’d be.
This is why we’ve turned the ladder into a garden this Lent. Instead of climbing higher and trying to erase or hide the ways our lives have departed from the script, Jesus teaches us a lesson today. There is so much that is out of our control. So much. And this is not something to feel ashamed about or to cover up with excuses. This is real life. And in this very real life of disappointments and slips on the ladder, there’s Jesus, picking up his big feathery wings and taking a break from what he cannot control, and instead finding something that he can. His own actions; his own love; his own power to make other people whole again.
I don’t know exactly what part of your life feels out of your control right now, but I can guarantee that something does. And this is what you need to know: Jesus is with you. Feeling your pain and frustration alongside you, and giving you permission to stop pretending like everything is okay. And instead look around at life as it is, imperfect and messy, and there in this realness trust that God is there too. It might not be where we thought we’d be, but it’s where we are. And in this moment, in this place, find a way to be who God created you to be, good enough, strong enough, loving enough, for that which you can control.
Grace and Peace,